In the last twelve months or so, I have connected with at least a half dozen cities, several local and national nonprofits, the philanthropic arm of a major corporation, and even the ministries of education and of local government of Trinidad and Tobago, all of whom are engaged in some way with youth councils. Many were starting new initiatives around school, organizational, and municipal councils; others were barely hanging on to an existing council and afraid to say that it just wasn’t working anymore; and finally, others were pretty much done but weren’t sure how to end it.
Part of the opportunity and the challenge of working with youth councils (and youth generally) is that we adults come to the game with very good intentions, but too often with very stale models or without a clear vision of what we really want. We have what I call a massive “intentions-to-practice gap.” We assume that, because we were youth once, we must know what we are doing when it comes to working with youth. (This is a fallacy by the way.) We come without a true understanding of how to make a council successful and sustainable for our unique circumstances (i.e. our city, state, school, community, organization and youth). We come wanting to provide an opportunity for youth, but lack the understanding and skills to genuinely share our power with them. We come because we believe it is the “right thing to do” for our youth, but without articulating why it is the smart thing to do for our organization, city, state, school or otherwise. We just start a youth council – seems pretty simple.
This is why 3-4 years down the road so many groups get so frustrated when things are not working out like they had hoped. Maybe the youth stop coming. Maybe our initial diversity doesn’t seem so diverse anymore. Maybe it feels like the council is just meeting to be meeting. Maybe the adult who championed it is no longer around. Maybe our city or organizational leadership has moved on to other more pressing issues or ideas. Maybe our initial funding has run out.
Effective youth councils are far more complex than we typically prepare for. So, in order to help close the intentions-to-practice gap, and in order to provide better and more lasting opportunities for our young people and therefore more sustainable communities and a stronger democracy, I offer you the following considerations before you start a council or revamp your existing one:
Consideration of these and other questions in your thinking around a youth council are critical if we are to close the intentions-to-practice gap. But, understand that you may not initially have all of the answers. This is not a prescription or a static plan. Over time, however, from the start of a council to a year-end reflection to a complete revamping after many years, addressing these issues and questions will help you ensure your best intentions are met with best practices.
Finally, we also must understand that the “youth council” is only one of many options for engaging young people in your work. If the council model does not match your core strategy or your staff capacity or you just don’t have the funding to do the quality work to answer these questions, that’s OK. Don’t start a council. Be creative. Use some of these and other criteria and questions to find something that will work for you that is strategic, sustainable, and meaningful youth engagement. This is the goal; the council is just one of practically infinite strategies for getting there.